This is not an article about how Bill O’Reilly is just like Adolf Hitler. Nevertheless, there are parallels between the multiethnic Habsburg Empire and the contemporary United States, in particular the racial alienation felt by some in the ethnic majority after previously marginalized minorities gained a measure of political power.
We know how Austria-Hungary’s story ended. It never created a national consciousness with which the bulk of citizens, no matter their ethnicity, truly identified. After the Empire dissolved in 1918, the region’s peoples — in particular ethnic Germans — increasingly turned to a racial understanding of national identity, with disastrous results.
The conclusion of our country’s story on national identity remains to be written, but how we adapt to the “browning” of our population will undoubtedly be pivotal. I don’t for a second believe that the United States will follow a path similar to that of post-Habsburg Central Europe, but understanding what happened there can, I believe, offer insight into the reactions of some white Americans to demographic and political changes here.
The ethnic Germans in Habsburg-ruled Austria experienced two shocks to their national identity in rapid succession: First, Prussia defeated Austria in 1866 and expelled it from the German Confederation, an organization of German states of which Austria had been president since its creation in 1815. Then, in 1871, a new Germany was born, which excluded Austria. Nevertheless, German language and culture remained dominant in the Habsburg Empire — at least outside of its Hungarian lands, which received autonomy in 1867. The ethnic Germans of Habsburg Austria saw their state as a fundamentally German institution, despite its multiethnic population.
However, by the dawn of the 20th century, the Austro-Germans’ privileged position was under assault, as some nationalist leaders from the other ethnic groups, in particular the Czechs, demanded political equality and parity for their languages. Austro-German anger about these changes reflected a good degree of national chauvinism, the belief that German culture — and, for the extremists, their race — was superior, more “civilized” than that of their neighbors.
Even more offensive, a Yiddish-speaking Orthodox Jew could — by dint of German citizenship — claim membership in the German national community, while an ethnic German raised in Linz and living in Vienna, for example, remained outside the boundaries of the new Germany. In a time when nationalist feelings were growing more intense, when many believed that an all-out battle among the “races” of Europe was sure to come soon, such people needed to know they securely belonged in one of them. Some Austro-Germans unsurprisingly turned to a racial definition of Germanness that included them regardless of state borders, while excluding these “foreign” Jews. Adolf Hitler was one such Austro-German.
The shock of Barack
In our country, some whites experienced Barack Obama’s presidential victories as a shock to their national identity. After November’s election, Bill O’Reilly put it this way: “Traditional America as we knew it is gone. Ward, June, Wally and the Beav, outta here,” he opined. “The white establishment is now the minority.”
White cultural anxiety is as old as the republic. It does appear, however, to have sharpened recently, exacerbated by developments such as the Obamas’ presence in the White House and the fact that, as of last year, fewer than half of all babies born in the U.S. are non-Hispanic whites. I want to make an important distinction here between the broad category of culturally anxious whites and the much smaller, much more extreme sub category of racially alienated whites, whom I’ll discuss in more detail below. The broader category includes anyone who heard O’Reilly’s statement and thought, at least to some degree, “He’s right, and that’s a problem for us and for America.”
Certainly not everyone who expresses concern about our country’s ability to, for example, successfully integrate large numbers of immigrants is a hardcore racist. Many with that concern are non-white, as seen in a recent Apollo Group/National Journal Next America poll, which showed that 45 percent of whites, 47 percent of African Americans, and even 28 percent of Latinos either mostly or completely agreed that “the growing number of newcomers from other countries are a threat to traditional American customs and values.”
In the long run, most culturally anxious Americans — the younger ones perhaps more easily than their elders — will come around to the reality of what America is becoming and will make their peace with it, or at least avoid feeling completely alienated from it. As Jon Stewart noted in a highly entertaining response to O’Reilly, this country has become very good at absorbing new “minorities.” O’Reilly’s concerns, Stewart remarked, demonstrate “the health and vitality of America’s greatest tradition — a fevered, frightened ruling class lamenting the rise of a new ethnically and religiously diverse new class, one that will destroy all that is virtuous and good, and bring the American experiment crashing to the ground. Except you’re forgetting one thing. That is the American experiment. An ethnic group arriving on America’s shores to be reviled and hazed, living in squalor — or if they’re lucky, Squalor Heights — working hard to give their children or grandchildren the opportunity to shit on the next group landing on our shores.”
Despite having exacerbated it, Obama is well suited to constructively address white anxiety and will continue to do so in his second term and beyond his presidency. His definition of Americanness, which I explore in my book Obama’s America: A Transformative Vision of Our National Identity, is respectful of our pluralism and ethno-cultural diversity but prioritizes the enhancement of a national cohesion built around democratic ideals, a common if multifaceted history, and a shared fate going forward.
We can see this definition in Obama’s second inaugural address, where he declared: “We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.”
Furthermore, in the aftermath of the 2012 election, many conservatives have come to recognize that the kind of divisive rhetoric employed by the Romney campaign is a political loser with a voting population that is increasingly non-white. When Mitt Romney lamented that Obama had won the election by bestowing “gifts” to “certain members of his base coalition…especially the African-American community, the Hispanic community and young people,” he was strongly repudiated by members of his own party such as Sen. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) and Gov. Bobby Jindal (La.). At a January retreat, House Republicans attended a panel titled “Discussion on Successful Communication with Minorities and Women.” One hopes that such a shift in Republican rhetoric will help reduce the level of white anxiety in our society.
America for real Americans
But what about those whites who are unwilling to be assuaged and refuse to identify as members of a multiethnic American community? Not just the birthers, but also those who put up yard signs that read “Vote for the real American”? Such people may acknowledge Obama’s citizenship, yet maintain that he isn’t an American. That is the crux of the problem.
The Romney campaign’s language was divisive, but other voices on the Right are more extreme. In an October 2009 article titled “Traditional Americans Are Losing Their Nation,” Pat Buchanan wrote: “The alienation and radicalization of white America began long before Obama arrived…They have seen trillions of tax dollars go for Great Society programs, but have seen no Great Society, only rising crime, illegitimacy, drug use and dropout rates. They watch on cable TV as illegal aliens walk into their country, are rewarded with free educations and health care and take jobs at lower pay than American families can live on — then carry Mexican flags in American cities and demand U.S. citizenship.…Neither they nor their kids ever benefited from affirmative action, unlike Barack and Michelle Obama.”
Buchanan is correct. White cultural anxiety and racial alienation predate the Obama presidency, which has both strengthened the feeling among nonwhites that they truly are included in the American community, and further convinced some disaffected whites that they truly have lost their nation.
Paralleling the racialist Austro-Germans who rejected the Germanness of Jewish citizens of Germany, the most extreme alienated whites (again, a group far smaller than those who express some anxiety about a demographically changing America) believe that nonwhites — as well as, perhaps, Jews, gays or even liberals — are not “real” Americans. Thus any definition of Americanness that includes these groups is counterfeit. A true America would restore self-defined whites to their proper place as “people of the state” — just as Austro-Germans saw themselves a century ago: the natural leaders of a state that, despite its multiethnic population, embodied their culture. Any other America isn’t worth having.
According to historian of white nationalism Leonard Zeskind, “White nationalists…are dedicated to the proposition that those they deem to be ‘white’ own special rights: the right to dominate political institutions, the economy, and culture. They believe that a ‘whites-only’ nation exists in fact, if not in name. And they swear to a duty to create a whites-only nation-state on soil that was once the United States of America.”
These white nationalists cling to an imagined definition of what America once was — an America that valued them because of the one thing no one can take from them: their whiteness. They fear that if America is not “white” then they will be second-class citizens. And if they can’t “take America back,” extremist whites may dream of a secession. A post-election column at the right-wing World Net Daily by Vox Day (a.k.a. Theodore Beale) laid out this scenario in language more extreme than that of Buchanan. Speaking on behalf of “white Americans who … derive their sense of identity from historical America,” Beale stated that secession is inevitable. He lamented “the infestation of even the smallest American heartland towns by African, Asian and Aztec cultures.” His white Americans share nothing in common with “tens of millions of post-1965 immigrants from various non-European nations around the world, or their urban enablers.”
(For context, in 2006, Beale wrote another WND column in which he cited Nazi Germany’s success in having “rid themselves of six million Jews” as evidence that the U.S. could certainly deport 12 million undocumented immigrants. WND removed the Holocaust reference after the column’s initial posting.)
Despite the parallels between racial Austro-German nationalists in Habsburg Austria and racially alienated American whites today, the two histories, thankfully, remain profoundly different. The lack of strong democratic traditions, defeat in World War I — a defeat virtually all German nationalists refused to accept — and the Great Depression created the conditions in which the Nazis could seize power.
Even with our currently uncertain economic outlook, such a development remains unlikely in the United States, in particular given the small numbers of those whites who are truly racially alienated. Nevertheless, these extremists need not turn us into a racialist, genocidal totalitarian state in order to cause serious damage to the fabric of our society. Just think of what a few more Timothy McVeigh-type attacks might do.
We ignore their alienation at our peril.